I’ve already looked here at a couple of classic songs from AC/DC and Bob Dylan. In their structure and form they do pretty much what you’d expect – and do it magnificently. But I also wanted to look at songs that do things a bit differently and to explore how the techniques I outlined in verse/chorus form can be used to help songs work even when doing so in unexpected ways.
Snow Patrol’s “Run” was the first single off their breakthrough third album released in early 2003. It follows to the letter the approaches we’ve already looked at, but it does so in ways that go against what you generally do to get verse/chorus songs to work. In fact, on the surface at least, you wonder why it doesn’t just fall into a hole.
There’s nothing particularly unexpected in the verse, which is built around a repeated 2-bar pattern with underlying chords: a minor, F major G major. But only the initial a minor is in root position and unmodified. The second chord, the F, is in a first inversion on the guitar (F/a) but with a C in the bass. But the vocal melody at this point is an e and d, giving us something that’s more Fmaj7 or Fmaj6. Additionally, just before we change to the following G chord, the f on the d-string is lifted off to give us a 3-note chord containing a, d, c which hints at both amin4 and dmin7. It’s ambiguous, and intentionally so.
Across all these chords there’s a hel high c note, so the G is a Gsus4 – though there’s more blurring going on here as well. Instead of playing the b on the a-string to give us a nice straightforward G major, we have a d up on the 5th fret which gives g d d c, an open-sounding Gmaj4 with no third.
(As an aside here, if you want to look at the main guitar part in more detail, the video below is as good a guide as any – though note that he says “Fsus4” when he actually means “Gsus4”. Most of the online chord or tab sites just give the verse as amin, F, G, which doesn’t do justice to what’s actually going on harmonically.)
Except for that last Gsus4 where we add in the bottom e-string, the other two chords only use 3 strings, so the harmonies are only barely sketched out. The other guitar plays an intermittent descending line that’s more e min7 than a minor, and in the repeat of the verse there’s a continuously oscillating a – b ostinato pattern on strings that smears things even more by putting a b note through everything.
What all this adds up to harmonically is typical verse: a not very defined, somewhat ambiguous tonality, in this case, a Debussyan 5-note cluster containing every white note from a to e, with added f’s and g’s at appropriate moments. You could just about put your forearm across the white notes of a piano, add the bass underneath, and you’d have the verse covered. There’s movement, but we’re not really going anywhere, change but no real development. This feeling of turning on the spot is reinforced by the absence of anything in the harmonic movement that would give real definition or drive, in particular, subdominant (d) or dominant (E) chords.
Across all this we get a vocal that’s as much spoken as sung, built around just a handful of notes that are mainly on the off-beat. So with the minimal chords blurred by suspensions and inversions and an absence of any strong rhythmic movement, it’s a floaty, atmospheric verse, an Alexander Calder mobile, rotating in the breeze.
This brings us to the chorus, or perhaps I should say The Chorus (1:06 in the full video above). It’s very different.
First up, we have a modulation to the relative major, C major. We also get the kind of harmonic simplification we often see when moving into a chorus. So while the verse is harmonically ambiguous, the chorus is the opposite, it’s solidly and unambiguously in C major in all its C majory, root position glory. The guitars are the main instrument for the whole song and here, in contrast to the minimally articulated chords in the verse, there’s a combination of full 6-string, downstroke, on-beat, chords in one guitar while the other plays simple but powerful arpeggios, most of them in first position. Gone are the verse’s meandering, intertwining lines, or any lines at all for that matter.
This sense of “home key” is further reinforced by taking 4 full bars for each chord, as opposed to the verse where we whip through a 3-chord pattern in that time. Just the first C major lasts as long as the entire verse chord progression, and at this slower tempo, holding one chord for 4 bars is a real statement of intent.
Outside of the harmonic rhythm, the choice of chords hammers home this feeling of “here we are”. In contrast to the absence of strong, leading chords in the verse, the chorus is built almost entirely around the tonic, dominant, and subdominant (C, G, F), with an a minor thrown in before the final F. As we have 1 chord per 4 bars, the pattern is also loooonnnggg, 16 glorious bars, stretched out by a factor of 4 in comparison to the verse.
The singing? After rhythmically leading throughout the verse, the entry of the melody moves back behind the beat in the chorus. We also start to get longer notes e.g. “have … a choice” and “hear … my voice”, something which is totally absent from the verse. And while the verse is almost entirely on the off-beat, here it’s mainly on-beat, at least at key moments: the opening “light up, light up” lyrics are on downbeats 2 and 4, and the following phrases all start on beats and/or feature downbeats.
So when we hit the chorus we see the typical approaches: reinforcing the home key, changing both the harmonic and melodic rhythms, as well as changing the rhythmic placement of the vocals. But what’s quite unusual here is that some of these changes are back to front, they do the opposite of what you’d expect.
Firstly, most songs shorten the chord progression when you get to the chorus, i.e. you turn round the progression faster, usually double the speed. e.g., a 2 bar chorus pattern as opposed to a 4 or 8 bar one in the verse. this increases the energy and also usually helps reinforce the home key as it comes round more often.
Secondly, it’s a similar story with the rhythmic placement of the melody. Most songs move the singing forward when you get to the chorus … Bob Dylan’s “How does it feel?” is a great example, especially coming from a bridge where lines like “you used to feel” are way behind. Here, it’s the other way round, the “Light up, light up” comes after the start of the pattern, back on beat 2, while the verse lines are all ahead of the pattern start, they’re all upbeat phrases that lead us into the chord changes.
The risk in doing what Snow Patrol have done is that when you get to the chorus it’s as if you’ve hit the brakes. The harmonic rhythm slows right down, (in fact, in the first 4 bars of the chorus there IS no harmonic rhythm, we just sit on C major) and the melody moves back behind the beat. On the surface it’s a recipe for disaster. You’d expect all the energy to go out of the song at the exact moment where you need the reverse to happen.
But “Run” was a big hit – so what’s going on?
The first question to ask is do we even have a chorus at all. i.e., do we have chorus-like features that will enable the new section to function as a chorus and read as a chorus for the listener. Clearly, the answer is yes. If we look at what we need for a chorus, it’s all here: changes in the chord pattern? Tick. Changes to the harmonic rhythm? Tick. Changing both the melodic rhythm and rhythmic position? Tick. Finally, we modulate to the relative major, reinforcing the home key, so once again, Tick. Regardless of what else happens, there’s a solid base for a chorus and all of these features are enough to add interest and create forward momentum. The modulation to the major key alone is enough for a real lift in the song. If they’d stayed in a minor, I don’t know that we’d even be talking about any of this because without that modulation it’s hard to see what could have been done to give the same impact.
In digging a bit deeper, it’s worth looking at the rhythmic placement of the melody in the chorus. Yes it moves back initially, but then what happens is similar to what Dylan does in the bridge of “Like A Rolling Stone”, i.e. move the phrasing of the melody right back behind the beat but then in the following phrases gradually moves it forward, bringing real drive and momentum. The opening “Light up” is a lot later in the chord pattern than the opening verse melody. But the subsequent line follows almost immediately on “as if you have a choice”, jumping forward to start before the beat (2-and), while the third line enters even earlier still on the downbeat of the preceding bar for “even if you cannot hear my voice”.
This shifting forward is combined with something similar melodically. The top note of the opening “light up” is a C. This is followed on “have a choice” by a note one tone higher, a D, which is followed on the next phrase, “hear my voice”, by a note a tone higher again, an E. So, across the 3 phrases, each peak is a tone higher than the precedent: C, D, then E where that E is the highest sung note of the entire song, the climax if you like. So we see successive phrases that both move forward rhythmically and rise in pitch. It’s like a series of waves breaking on the shore, each one higher and earlier than the precedent.
So while the singing does the unexpected and moves back on the rhythm when we reach the chorus, it’s only for the first bar. For the rest of the chorus it does what we’d usually do, and then some, especially with the rising melody. But that “hiccup” at the beginning of the chorus is also what sets the whole song up. It leaves a moment of emptiness, a kind of void, but one that comes just as we shift into a higher gear with the guitars and of course, the modulation to the major.The result isn’t a feeling of emptiness, but of space, of opening out, expansiveness. It’s as if we’ve turned a corner onto a long, open road after spending hours navigating inner-suburban streets, or suddenly emerge into a clearing after hacking our way through dense forest. At the chorus, the song doesn’t so much drive forward, it soars. This is a real standing on the edge of a cliff, arms outstretched, video shot from a helicopter chorus. Not so much a punch-the-air chorus as a sing-along-with-the crowd, swaying-in-unison chorus. Which is why you get this happening:
The result isn’t a feeling of emptiness, but of space, of opening out, expansiveness. It’s as if we’ve turned a corner onto a long, open road after spending hours navigating inner-suburban streets, or suddenly emerge into a clearing after hacking our way through dense forest. At the chorus, the song doesn’t so much drive forward, it soars. This is a real standing on the edge of a cliff, arms outstretched, video shot from a helicopter chorus. Not so much a punch-the-air chorus as a sing-along-with-the crowd, swaying-in-unison chorus. Which is why you get this happening:
For me, this song reinforces a few key songwriting points.
Firstly, you don’t always have to do the expected to do what your listeners expect. There are different ways of skinning a cat. So, for example, while it’s true that most songs shift the melody forward on the chorus, you can still have great songs that do the opposite.
Secondly, the choices we make around our basic material have an impact on how a song reads for our listeners and what they understand in what we’re saying. Gary Lightbody wrote this song at a fairly low moment in his life. He said of the lyrics, especially the “Light up, light up” that he had the sense of a beacon in the distance, of no matter how difficult things were (the verse) there had to be light at the end of the tunnel (the major shift and the opening out in the chorus). The music does what the lyrics are saying. We feel the meaning as much as understand it lyrically and intellectually.
Thirdly, the song shows once again that while arrangements can really help make a song work, in most cases they aren’t the song. Even stripped down to just guitar and voice, this song still works, and just as importantly, works in the same way.
Finally, it shows how you can use the techniques I discussed in the verse/chorus entry to modulate the material. We’re often trying to push songs forward, but you can also use those approaches to ramp up or down the momentum, or to hold back, especially when transitioning to new sections.
© Peter Crosbie 2017. All rights reserved.